By Michael McNulty
A searing yellow sun sits in the deep oranges of the Australian sky, the dark red earth below it. Moments later we see the reflection of a man in the rear view mirror of his car as he falls in and out of sleep. The vehicle swerves off the road, into the brush and flips onto its back, before a man crawls out through an open window, unscathed. This is Foley, a “gun” sheep shearer, larrikin and embodiment of the Australian Alpha Male. So opens Ken Hannam’s 1975 film Sunday Too Far Away.
Sunday Too Far Away is a distinctly Australian film, one of the first great films to come out of the Australian New Wave and the first feature film produced by the South Australian Film Corporation, which would later go on to produce films such as Picnic at Hanging Rock and Rabbit Proof Fence. Its wins at the Australian Film Awards for best film, best actor and supporting actor generated a word of mouth that helped propel the film towards becoming a domestic hit. The film was subsequently entered into the Director’s Fortnight at Cannes, becoming the first Australian film ever screened at the festival.
Ken Hannam paints a portrait of the hard working Australian man in the backbreaking, sweaty labour of the sheep shearer. It is a commentary on male competitiveness and camaraderie – or mateship – with a touch of pro-union politics. Foley (Jack Thompson) and a crew of seven others are posted at the Timberoo stud farm where they have been contracted to shear the farm’s sheep. They elect Foley as a rep, ban the boss from the shed, shear, drink, rinse, repeat.
It’s a blue collar film with a social realist edge. It beautifully observes the lifestyle of the shearer, capturing the competitive nature of men, their quick, precise shearing and the work for the weekend attitude of this crew and so many others like it. Contractor Tim King (Max Cullen) warns the boys the night before they begin not to drink too much so that they’re not “too crook to start work tomorrow,” only in the morning to have to douse them down with buckets of cold water. Foley, with his decade long record of being the best shearer in the shed, is challenged by new comer Arthur Black (Peter Cummings). But, they are bound together by the work they do, and the pride they find in it. Hannam does an excellent job of capturing the honest dignity of the men’s work and finds in the physicality of their labour a man’s world of individual ability and collective effort.
Poor pay results in a strike and eventually leads to pub brawl between the crew and the “scabs” who have come to replace them. A title card at the end of the film reads, “The strike lasted nine months. The shearers won. It wasn’t the money so much, it was the bloody insult.”